The first 'working draft' map of the human gene sequence will be in the public domain by February 2000. By then, according to scientists in the UK and US working on the project, the position of 90 per cent of the 3 billion letters or bases that make up the human DNA 'instruction book' will have been mapped.

Such a speeding up of the initiative - as late as last autumn scientists hoped to reach this stage by Christmas 2001 - means that what may well be the largest collaborative scientific effort of all time should be complete, leading to an accurate and permanent guide to what makes a human being, by 2003.

There are numerous websites devoted to all this, many of them for the geneticists themselves. Indeed, so vast is the selection that the UK Human Genome Mapping Project based at the Wellcome Trust-funded Sanger Centre offers an A-Z sub-menu just for participating research centres.

For the inexpert though scientifically inclined, the US Human Genome Program 'suite of websites' funded by the US Department of Energy is a must, covering the research, medical, ethical, legal and social implications of the project.

Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man alone is stunning, offering, among other things, a searchable cytogenetic map of specific diseases. But it may come as a pleasant surprise to find that between 3 and 5 per cent of the budget actually goes towards research into ethical, legal and social issues.

Developing the ability to eliminate a wide range of inherited conditions is, at first sight, an attractive one. But there are plenty of disease support groups who wonder what curbs there will be. And who will have access to genetic information? Schools, courts, governments? At the end of a century in which the pseudo-science of eugenics inspired such human misery, there are few easy answers.